September is an interesting month in the Cinque Terre. Since I’m now, finally, out of school, it doesn’t hold that same feeling that it did (even in grad school, oddly enough). In the United States, it seems like it snaps right to that autumn, “back to school” season as everyone bids a last Labor Day farewell to warmer, carefree days at the beach.
In Monterosso, September has a different feeling – not of a beginning, per se, but of an end. The busy tourist season is winding down, and as August fades away, the tourists come to a screeching halt, falling back into my favorite mix of Americans, Australians and Northern Europeans, all of whom speak English, making my life much easier. The weather is sunny and still warm, and the beaches are sparsely dotted with blankets. Manuel and I had our choice of lettini (beach chairs) at the Stella Marina beach today, and everyone lounged around eating ice pops and drinking espresso. The locals are tired, but talk turns to upcoming winter vacation negotiations instead of the usual complaints about the heat, humidity, and headaches of what is always a very busy August. My friends happily debate the merits of Corsica over Sardinia, Indonesia over Thailand, and laugh at my American misfortune for never being able to visit the beaches of Cuba. All in all, it’s a happy time, and a relief that in a few months, everyone has their lives back again.
What I love most about this time of year is the staggering amount religious festivals and other cultural events that happen every week – sometimes twice - just in Monterosso. Adding up all of the Italian Riviera, it seems everyone has a church with some sort of patron saint day this month- not a huge stretch considering the high church-to-resident ratio in Italy. We have 3 churches, 2 orario’s, a convent and 2 sanctuaries, but I really have no idea of the difference between them. Italian people, though Catholic through and through, are in a rhythm of being accustomed to the various religious structures and festivals, and aren’t great at explaining what each one is for.
Thursday, for example, was the Festa di Maria di Fegina – the holiday for Maria of the church of the new town on Via Fegina. Ignorant to the fact that there was a “Maria Di Fegina”, I know a religious parade when I see it. I later did some digging and found out the actually feast day was for Santa Maria Nascente, who the tiny church is named for. In contrast to the huge church for St. John the Baptist (the official patron saint of Monterosso al Mare) this church is endearing – one room, with just a few sculptures, and – always – older Italian women clustered in the back, lips silently moving in prayers recited from decades of practice.
For the festa, the streets were bathed in glowing light, by dozens of small flickering candles (ironically cased in thin paper cupcake wrappers, which I have been unable to find here). Like a silent alarm went off, after the vespers finished, people automatically started putting out candles. Hundreds of people, holding candles and wearing robes, followed a huge crucifix and a small statue of the Virgin Mary down Via Fegina, chanting prayers and occasionally stopping to greet a friend or grandmother. It was beautiful, ethereal and solemn, but I couldn’t help but giggle a little as I noticed after the procession, the huge crucifix was carried back to the old town in a pick-up truck, sticking out the top awkwardly as 5 men and children held it still. Then followed the usual spettacolo pirotecnico (fireworks) that everyone loves. Adults and children alike lined the railings to the beach, “oooooh-ing” and “ahhhhh-ing” appropriately. Yes, fireworks are fireworks, but flashing over an inky black Ligurian Sea with a cloudless, cool night they have a special feeling. Everyone stops to look, smiling up at the sky. Food stops coming out of the kitchen for a few minutes, and diners and waiters alike are on a pause, gazing up at the dripping colors into the sea.
Now I see why everyone here loves September.